The Misspelled Portfolio

It was a simple question: “When reviewing a portfolio of a designer, researcher, or content candidate, what things trigger a red flag or concern for you?”

I got pushback from Rachael straight away.

So let me explain my thinking around misspellings.

Text editors nowadays have spell check built in. Even Adobe Illustrator has a spell check now. In modern times, it’s really hard to get the spelling of a word off. (Of course, we also have to deal with auto-correct, whose predictive power is akin to a bad carnival fortune teller.)

When I see misspelled words in a portfolio, I start thinking about the designer’s attention to detail, and all the other portfolio details start magnifying in my head. Is their information architecture complete, or is it missing key details? Did they include identifying information and clear notes on their wireframes? Is their communication effective?

Now, I readily acknowledge, as an American English speaker, I learned spelling is a clear sign of quality in American English. We are the country that popularized the spelling bee, after all. Is it really the best measure of quality? Absolutely not. It’s merely a tell, not a demonstration. I’ve seen plenty of illogical and indecipherable written pieces over the years that have perfect spelling.

I’m also a grammar nut… but I care less about grammar in portfolios than I do about spelling. Non-native speakers bring their native language structures along with the quirks of their local English vernacular into their portfolios, making for what are perfectly sensible descriptions that read clumsy in American English.When I read it, though, I don’t judge. I ask: Do I understand what they’re saying? Are they communicating their thoughts and intents well, explaining why they made the decisions they made in a way that makes sense? Almost always, they are. I can understand their intent, and I think a stakeholder can to (and can engage in the conversation).

Not every person handing in a portfolio has a perfect grasp of my Middle American vernacular, and I can neither presume that nor expect it from applicants. In fact, in a design field that has gone truly global, we can’t rely completely on written and spoken language as a common unifier no matter how much English is the “language of global business.” Design’s language is… design. And those who grasp the concepts and can demonstrate their abilities to think and learn and grow will always be welcome in a field with those values.

Being able to write and speak more clearly is a practice, one learned through review, critique, and iteration — just like design. If someone’s portfolio shows they understand review, critique, and iteration, I don’t doubt they can also improve their communication skills as well. Where you start from matters, but it doesn’t matter as much as where you want to go and how much work you’ll put in to getting there. And that’s what I hire for, not for a low misspelling count or perfectly turned phrases.

That said, please proofread your portfolio copy before you hit the publish button. Spelling and grammar errors in your portfolio are distractions from the good work you do. A simple proofread will help you find and fix many little problems.

Author: Dylan Wilbanks

Dylan Wilbanks is a web roustabout, raconteur, and curmudgeon currently practicing as a user experience designer in Seattle. He’s spent nearly 20 years designing, building, and perfecting online experiences, and every once in a while does a good job. Occasionally, he speaks at conferences like SXSW and Webvisions. He created one of the first Twitter accounts used in higher education, but that was an accident, and he's really sorry about it.With Kyle Weems, he co-hosts Squirrel And Moose, a podcast about designing and building the web, when they remember to talk about it.He likes nectarines.You can read his tweets at @dylanw and learn more at dylanwilbanks.com.